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Edward Renehan, historian, on
John Brown's constitution

Ed Renehan

RENEHAN: When John Brown wrote his constitution, as he called it, for his state of runaway slaves that he hoped to found in the Allegheny mountains, in this safety of the Allegheny mountains, he did so in a bedroom of Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, a very plush, comfortable room, probably one of the most comfortable rooms John Brown had ever spent a night in, at least since he was an adult. And we can imagine the household situation; we can imagine the fragrant aroma of baking out of the kitchen downstairs. We can imagine the sound of Frederick Douglass' violin wafting up the stairs, as John Brown sketched out this constitution.

In the evenings, it took him several days to write that document. In the evenings he would come down to dinner and tell Frederick Douglass and Douglass' wife of his plan -- his evolving plan for Harpers Ferry -- for what was going to happen there. Douglass said later that it made his blood run cold to hear of the revenge that John Brown intended to inflict on the slave holders of Virginia, once he had amassed a large enough group of runaway slaves and armed them appropriately.

This was not, John Brown believed, that there were debts to be paid, there was retribution to be had. Again we see the old puritan, the Calvinist: "An eye for an eye." This is John Brown's god, and this was the argument that John Brown had with Garrison and other philosophical pacifists in the abolition movement. Garrison's god was a New Testament healer, a gentle god, a forgiving god, a god who would tend to take a dim view of cutting people's heads off with a broadsword. John Brown's God, on the other hand, was an angry, implacable, Calvinist figure who would inspire John Brown and others like him to lop off people's heads with broadswords.

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